By Timothy Ryan
August 2, 2012-What a difference four months can make. When I first went to Burma in January of this year, some of the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB) labor activists I met with were too worried about security forces to meet me in public. The officers of the Agriculture and Farmers Federation of Myanmar (AFFM), for example, had attempted to register with the government under the new Labor Organization Law but had been rebuffed. They met with me in my hotel room.
By the time I returned in April, we met in a hotel coffee shop and its chairperson, Than Swe, seemed very confident. In the previous four months, the AFFM distributed 35,000 membership forms in areas around Rangoon, Mandalay and Arakan, had received 9,462 applications (up from 4,200 members in January) and issued 6,942 membership cards.
Today, in the wake of pressure put on the Burmese government at the International Labor Conference in June, the AFFM boasts 16 registered units, with dozens more in the process of registering. In addition, the government has told various observers that it is prepared to allow the FTUB and its leaders to re-enter the country after their years of exile, and to register the federation under the new law as well.
Workers are organizing in the industrial sector as well, with new FTUB affiliates registered in paper, plastic and textile/garment factories. In Bago, a provincial city about two hours north of Rangoon, we checked in with the Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Union of Bago (TGLWUB), whom I first met in January. In four months their membership expanded from 2,000 to 5,000 workers in three factories. Most factories in the region have Chinese, Korean or Taiwanese owners, and union representatives say they work seven days a week and make 15 cents an hour, or about $2 a day.
Besides what appears to be a new reality for freedom of association, the media also may be opening up. These twin developments are groundbreaking for the Journalist, Press and Publication Workers Union (JPPWU), which also registered two units in July. In the months since my first visit with them, they had held their founding convention with about 100 delegates from all over the country—and had gained 250 members, nearly doubling their membership. They said they could have about 4,000 potential members in Burma.
While there is still controversy and negotiations over what a new press/media law would look like, JPPWU members said there had been some pushback from the media on the government’s first draft. Even though a few entrepreneurs are taking the plunge and opening new publications, most are waiting for the law to pass and the landscape to become clearer before they jump in. Most people in the countryside get their information from radio, and the top broadcasters are Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and the BBC Burmese service. The AFP, Reuters, Associated Press and the BBC have locally staffed bureaus.
Something that struck me about all the workers I met from the different sectors was their organizing grew out of a desire not only to improve their wages and working conditions, but from a fierce conviction that this was a moment in history and if they were going to build a democratic society, it would be unions that could lead the way.